Why did the Dalai Lama ban Dorje Shugden?

Meindert Gorter explores the history and reasons behind the Dalai Lama's ban on the deity Dorje Shug

The Dalai Lama has given several reasons to explain the excommunication of the protector, Dorje Shugden, back in 1996. However what he has actually seemed to be doing is adapting the gravity of the ban to match the level of protest against it within the Tibetan community. In some interviews he has even denied having banned the deity; he only wanted to give a warning, people can make their own decision.

The deity is accused of fundamentalism because he obstructs the mixing of the four main schools of Buddhism, which is supported by the Dalai Lama and his teachers. The Dalai Lama said the thought of Dorje Shugden bothered him while taking initiations from one of these, the Nyingma lineage.

We, who stubbornly go on with the deity-practise, don’t see any reason whatsoever to mix the lineages. Each lineage has its own unique transmission; if mixed we think it's like mixing an apple pie with a banana split: you will end up with an undefined mess. There is a lot of mutual respect between the lineages so why give them up?

Knowing the Dalai Lama’s status and the adoration Tibetans feel for him, his words caused turmoil in Tibetan society. Solely due to social pressure, people decided to abandon the practice of worshipping Dorje Shugden, choosing to live by the lines set out by the Dalai Lama.

After all, continuation of this practise was bad for the Dalai’s health and damaging the Tibetan cause, and who wants responsibility for that? Serious Dorje Shugden practitioners however felt it impossible to choose between the two. "The Dalai Lama wants me to choose between my father and my mother," said some when asked why they would not stop. Others, more philosophically trained monks and teachers, found the ban to be anti-Buddhistic and for that reason alone would not stop.

Gradually the pressure on Dorje Shugden practitioners got worse. Fanatical Dalai Lama followers began to demolish statues of the deity, the existing social solidarity amongst Tibetans was gone. Even in Tibet itself, where restoration of temples is in full swing and people enjoy new religious freedom, this ban created suspicion. Dorje Shugden worshippers were accused of being part of the ‘Dorje Shugden sect’ and became outcasts. The Dorje Shugden Society was founded, an ad-hoc group of people working together to oppose the ban - not to save the enlightened deity from harm but to help thousands of people from becoming outcasts.

But numerous appeals and worldwide protests have not helped. The Dalai Lama has not responded and refuses all contact. If you think the Dalai Lama is only in the business of provoking positive sentiments, as most Westeners believe, you have to firmly close your eyes to imagine this less romantic reality.

During speeches in India in January 2008, he has enforced the ban more strictly then ever before, claiming that his own religious freedom is obstructed by Dorje Shugden.

The last years brought us forced signature campaigns, in which monks promised to stop propitiating Dorje Shugden in return for obtaining travel documents from the exiled government or to be admitted into monasteries. Last January monks were engaged in weird actions such as swearing in a loud voice to denounce the deity. All contact with those monks that have not followed the ban is forbidden. This implements a de-facto apartheid with signs forbidding monks from entering classrooms, hospitals and shops. They even have to study and dine separately.

However, in spite of all this, there exists some solidarity with the Nyingma monks helping the Dorje Shugden monks to survive within this hostile monastic environment.

Meindert Gorter is a student of Kundeling Rimpoche, a major critic of the Dalai Lama’s ban on the deity Dorje Shugden. He lives in the Netherlands with his wife and two children.
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I organised so much support for Maria, I wonder if I became part of the problem

She began to attend our appointments with a support worker in tow, almost as a symbol of her incapacity.

Maria hardly ever came to the doctor’s. So, it was surprising when, out of the blue, I took an urgent call from an occupational health adviser. Maria, he said, was sitting in his office, having been referred for an assessment by her employers. In the course of the interview, she’d disclosed that she was contemplating suicide. The adviser sounded rattled. He wasn’t prepared to let her leave unless he knew I was going to follow her up that day. I duly fixed an appointment, and told him I would take it from there.

So began a two-year relationship. Initially, I saw Maria at frequent intervals to develop an understanding of her situation. She had been suspended from work following an alleged breach of duties. She felt powerless against the juggernaut of disciplinary action that had been unleashed. Divorced some years earlier, and with volatile relationships with her parents and siblings, she had little social support. Suicide had come to seem the only way out as her world tumbled around her.

I started her on antidepressants, but more importantly I set about shoring her up. She was in a trade union, so I encouraged her to get assistance. I referred her to the mental health service, which allocated a key worker with time and expertise to come alongside. They put her in touch with an employment support team. Fairly soon, she was surrounded by an array of professionals, all of them fighting her corner.

Over the next five months the conflict with her employers polarised irretrievably, and eventually the union negotiated a severance deal that allowed her to walk away with a reference. Still more torrid times lay ahead as she sought to rebuild her confidence to seek new employment. Every so often there would be a new crisis in her personal life to complicate matters: various family members would cut off relations with each other or with her. Her mood fluctuated between guarded optimism and despair.

Then came the breakthrough: a job at a department store. It was seasonal, so not a permanent contract, and in many ways that seemed ideal, allowing a time-limited try-out of a new environment. And once she’d overcome her initial fear it went swimmingly. She enjoyed the customer contact, and found the return of structure and income positive. It was fantastic to see her happier again, and all the work of the preceding months seemed to have borne fruit.

As the temporary post drew to a close, she became despondent at the prospect of leaving. Her managers were evidently pleased with her and there was talk of a permanent contract. But, crushingly, it came to nothing.

That proved to be the last straw. What confidence Maria had regained, disintegrated. Over the ensuing year she became ever more entrenched in the sick role, the professionals around her now merely validating her fragility, rather than helping her move forward. I continued to certify her unfit so that her benefits were maintained, but persisted with our cognitive work, encouraging small steps, my memory of how transformed she had been when she worked at the department store still fresh. Maybe that was a misjudgement: she began to attend our appointments with a support worker in tow, almost as a symbol of her incapacity.

Eventually Maria was summoned for an independent medical to assess her ability to work. She was placed in the “support group”, meaning the benefits agency accepted that she was long-term unfit. I tried to establish how she felt about this, but couldn’t work out if it was a relief, or whether deep down it felt like being consigned to the scrapheap.

Shortly afterwards, she left my list and registered with a neighbouring practice. Perhaps she blamed me for her redundancy; or maybe my reluctance to give up hope was no longer compatible with how she saw herself. Either way, the rejection hurt – an inkling, perhaps, of the way Maria herself experiences the world in which she lives. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war